Rich Bartlett – Challenge Roth 2016

I have used the 16 hour drive back from the Isle of Skye to finally pulled my notes together for my Challenge Roth 2016 race report, its near on 9 months since the day but as always I really do find that writing these is a great opportunity for reflection on Triathlon(ing) in general. I have once again gone a bit mad so if you do choose to read it I warn you it’s an endurance event in itself.

Challenge Roth 2016

Disturbia Defined:
The moment when you realise the full consequences of an action/decision. To entertain the idea of or to complete something that others find hard to understand or disturbing

The moment you say “Oh S***t, what the hell I have got myself in to now… engage survival mode”

challenge-rothSo here I am flat on my back alongside a canal in Bavaria, not quite sure what I’m doing here but looking down you could reasonable assume I had just stopped for a wee. Restoring my dignity I took a quick glance at my watch I can see 32k on the clock, with a big 09:05 below… although in my current situation mental arithmetic isn’t exactly my strongest discipline, the maths appears to be quite straight forward, 10km to run, 55 minutes to do it in… an easy zone 2 plod would usually see that done, all things considered somehow I think that zone 2 plod is not going to be as easy as it sounds. On the Brightside the Imodium I took this morning still appear to be holding strong…

So I have worked out where I am but how quite did I get here, the journey as always did not start 9 hours and 5 minutes ago.

My first Ironman never, as I hoped, scratched an itch. Far from it, in fact it all seemed to do was start the rash that every now and then you can slap a bit if hydrocortisone on and dull the tingle. After Ironman France the prescription was quite simple, whilst I appear to have the time to put in the required training I must get under 10 hours, the threshold of a keen amateur. After doing a bit of research and chatting to some fellow triathletes I settled on Challenge Roth, a quick race, fantastic support and in a part of the world I have never travelled to before. Luckily I made this decision before the entries opened. It sold out in 2 minutes and on this occasion I was one of the lucky ones, along with my brother in law Matt and fellow Tri-Surrey club mate Pete.

With the entry sorted I laid off any proper training for the rest of the year and just dipped in and out as I fancied. After the Christmas break that was it, excel spreadsheet complete, exactly 28 weeks, 9 hours and 5 minutes to go until the situation described above.

My race plan to sub 10 involved finding savings in all the disciplines, I plugged the numbers I thought achievable into my little predictor and out spat 09:58, perfect. Much to my happiness this race plan involved a sub 05h20m bike split so to my make my life easier I raided some savings and a 10yr old student overdraft that Natwest had forgotten about and bought myself a TT bike and Power Meter. You will happy to know now that I have no intention of talking about watts per kilo or FTP’s from here on in, all I can say is that the power meter completely changed my training. Every session I did was with purpose and it felt like a natural evolution from the heart rate training I found so effective in 2015.

Best Laid Plans

The Best Laid Plans of mice and men often go awry:
I.e. No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it in an unexpected or unplanned way.

Unfortunately 2016 kicked off with Selina having to go through a number of procedures and operations for various different things, on top of trying to buy and sell our house plus a major ramp up in work, the Best Laid Plans were indeed just that, going awry.

Training was, at best, disjointed and without any form of consistency. For the first time I was lying to myself about what I was getting done just to try not get disheartened. I found this period of the training block had really manifested itself in a different way to ever before, whereas before I had trained to feel good, this time I was training to just not feel bad… I was training because I knew I had to and not because I wanted to. I also frankly had very different priorities, a poorly wife and a much bigger mortgage.

To try mitigate all of the above my training had to adapt, the main thing being it had to become more flexible, so I moved inside. As the saying goes, one hour on the turbo counts for two outside, perfect. Although this came with a fair amount of grief from my club mates, who took great delight in me explaining I had a cycle date with my “online buddies” I absolutely stand by the effectiveness of turbo work. My swimming plan was also a bit different, i.e. I just swam, no technique training, just swimming, either 100’s or 400’s. It was less to think about, less to worry about and on this occasion it worked for me. I also canned the training tracker, it was great motivation in 2015, but in 2016 it was just a stressful reminder of how I was not doing enough.

Unfortunately the rest of the “training block” followed the same sort of pattern. A particularly memorable week saw a house sale, a house move to a major “doer upper”, a thyroid removal for Selina, 2 abandoned training sessions where I slept in the car at the gym instead and finally my only planned race before Roth, a half ironman in East Sussex. The “B” race was perfectly timed to test the plan and make sure everything was on track, and although I scraped an 8th place and a fairly respectable time it was driven more by angst fuelled frustration than fitness, there was still a long way to go if I had any really hope of getting close to my target. As I write this I am cringing a bit as this is not a search for sympathy, all you have to do is watch some Kona highlights to know that there are some pretty major athletes out there who have to deal with a lot more than this, but I am just explaining my year and how ultimately it resulted in me racking up my bike in a green field in Bavaria feeling grossly under prepared.

So May went by as did June and before you knew it I was squeezed into a very full car with 2 parents, a sibling, a wife, a dog and a TT Bike (held together with a gutter bolt after an unfortunate mishap the day before), nothing more to do but get there without falling out with anyone.

We were staying in an apartment just outside of Nuremburg, approximately 40 minutes from the race start. We arrived in good time to take in the usual hullabaloo, registering early and making sure I got a glimpse of Jan Frodeno. Even if I managed my race target, he would be finishing 2.5 hours before me as he aimed to break the world record, an unbelievable feat, and with good weather predicted the general consensus was he would manage it. Unsurprisingly my own target was not generating the same level of chatter in the athletes village…

As this is ultimately a race report and someone may be reading it to get an idea of whether or not to choose Roth, I should probably (in my limited experience) rate the experience… well it’s great, it’s all great. The expo, the registration process, the location, it all just has an amazing vibe. In France you felt like a “pro”, down on the promenade in the sun surrounded by the Ironman brand it felt serious. Here in a small town in Southern Germany you felt like you were surrounded by 250,000  people who just wanted to see you have fun, yes of course everyone is aware of the effort it has taken to get there and there is no change to the desire of people to do well, it just feels nice. Do it!

Any hints and tips? Not really, get there early, get to know the area, drive the course, swim in the canal, register early, rack early, relax, talk to people, smile at people, get your spectator spots sorted and most importantly give yourself time to enjoy it. Also go to the race briefing, its boring but there will be some stuff you do not want to miss.

The Race

Here it is, the pros are off swimming with the bang of an almighty cannon, the air is filled with hot air balloons and the canal banks and bridges are swollen with people. Although it is a warm and still morning I have been unable to shake that inner feeling of cold and impending sense of doom that so often accompanies pre-race anxiety. Did I feel ready, just like I said in 2015, enough is never enough. It is though what I have done, externally I had pre-empted failure, getting my excuses in early, that protection mechanism I believe most of us probably do. Internally though, failure is not an option… 99% of me believed that as long as nothing unexpected happened I would roll in having run a 03:20 marathon in 9 hours and 58 minutes. The 1% that didn’t believe had been a very strong voice in the weeks leading up to the race, jumping on any niggle, rubbish power numbers or run splits as a weakness, an excuse that I would not make it. Now though was not the time for that, over a long distance race there is no room for doubt, don’t let it in, it’s a parasite that will only grow from the gun to the end.

I was actually quite excited for the swim, unlike 2015 where a mass start led to an hour of panic and controlled drowning here I was with 200 other athletes all with the same ambition of finishing the race in under 10 hours. The cannon went off, well actually it didn’t, every other wave had a cannon, ours people just looked confused and started swimming. It was a bit scrappy to start but for the most part the swim was uneventful. The crowd though was spine tingling, you could hear them at times under the water and on each breath seeing cheering people on the banks was just fantastic. The swim was quick, with no need to really sight you could just get you head down. Coming out the water in 01h06m was really a great surprise, on top of that I squeezed out of T1 in 4mins rather than the 5mins in the race plan, just what I needed 5 minutes in the pocked for dealing with any of those “Best laid plans”.

On the bike, damn this feels good… there is nothing like being sat on a TT bike on a smooth as silk road cruising along at car like speeds, it just puts a smile on your face, what we train for. The bike course is by no means flat but also far from hilly, it undulates through the countryside on ironed flat tarmac. The most difficult thing is reminding yourself that its long race, a long day and now is not the time to treat this as a 180k TT race. Coming to Solarberg for the first time was like nothing I have experienced, carving you way through a 10 deep crowd was reminiscent for me of the days I used to watch my cycling childhood heroes (now disgraced drug cheats) cutting their way through a frenzied mob on Mont Ventoux.

It was contagious, the energy flows out of them up through your wheels and into your legs, before I knew it my HR was way into zone 5 as I crunched my way up a 10% gradient in the big chain ring with an even bigger smile on my face.

Solarberg gets all the attention but crowds similar to this are everywhere, its exhilarating… just remember to slow down! As they say, bike for show, run for dough.

Unfortunately just at the start of the second bike loop I began to experience some stomach cramps and general feelings of nausea, I was hydrated and fuelled but something wasn’t quite right. I had taken some salt tablets and 2 paracetamol for a headache so perhaps it was those, but whatever it was, it was unpleasant. With 40k to go it had got a lot worse, I was still managing to turn the pedals but had given up on trying to drink or eat anything substantial without throwing up. I knew I just had to get off the bike, have a slow transition, relax and get on my feet. I pushed on back into Roth and completed the bike leg in 05h8m. Including the time I had made up on the swim I know had 15 minutes in the pocket. I felt rough as hell but how could I not be confident, the 1% of doubt was still nowhere to be seen.

T2 was a lesson for me in the oldest triathlon advice going, “don’t try anything new on race day”. Why oh why did I think it was a good idea to put a bag of salted peanuts in my transition bag. For some crazy reason I looked at these and they seemed like the answer to my stomach issues. Despite wanting to relax I felt pressured by the very helpful yet assertive German lady who was helping me change my shoes, she pretty much chased me out of the tent and sent me on my way. With a handful of peanuts I chose the wrong option of throwing them all in an already very dry mouth, within seconds I had managed to create an indigestible lump of peanut butter, impossible to chew, impossible to swallow and sucking up every last bit of moisture in my body. I coughed it up and undoubtedly made a few nearby supporters worried about what they were witnessing. Time for a drink… 2km until the first aid station, I could have cried. I didn’t cry though, I walked. Walked! I hadn’t walked in 3 years, I was now 500m into a 42k run and just started.

The problem with walking is that quite frankly I found it embarrassing, I was meant to be competing with the other elite amateurs and here I was walking. I made the aid station and grabbed a cup of water, unfortunately the peanut coated throat made me cough, cough and cough until I threw up again. It was quite despairing to be honest and I felt pretty hopeless. I had not eaten or drunk for an hour and knew the mega bonk was imminent. The 1% doubt was growing pretty quick, not quite an unmitigated disaster but I was using up my 15 minute buffer quick. I shuffled my way to km 7 where I met my wife and family.

You read race reports and admittedly I have said it myself that we do it all for someone else, but the more I have thought about this statement I just can’t really see it or believe it. Long distance triathlons are ultimately a selfish sport, I don’t believe I stand on the start line to make anyone proud, yes this is often a nice side effect, but this is not the reason I put myself through hours of training week in week out. For the most part we do it for ourselves, because dare I say it but we have mixology of three traits amongst us; Narcissism, masochism, and egotism. These traits depending on their proportions make us want to test ourselves, beat ourselves, or sometimes beat someone else. We do this for us, and this is what makes our loved ones we drag along with us even more special, certainly in my case the traits of “the support” are very different… kindness, patience and care, Selina does not inspire me to race or train she gives me the tools and the time in the understanding that this is something I need to do for me and because of this before I disappear all of Sunday on my bicycle, or leave her to enjoy another box set on her own whilst I sweat away on the turbo or indeed collapse across the finish line all I can is thank you. Thank you for having the opposite traits I possess in the best way possible.

She said all the right things, my dad and sister who had made it out to watch me for the first time and my mum said all said the right things, throw in this a surprise cheer and name check from Chrissie Wellington round the next bend I was joined by some energy. Not energy from gels, energy from much deeper within, we all get it, hard to explain but it’s incredibly powerful in the toughest moments. Another unique feature of Roth is that you are allowed music on the run, I had bought mine along just in case and made the decision at that stage to stick on my “rise & shine” turbo playlist, hitting shuffle I was met with Public Enemy – Harder than you think, perfect! I laughed at the timing of it all, pretending I was in now in an Asics advert I took off. Managing a bag of electrolyte salts and a small cup of coke at the 12km feed station I felt the best I had done all run, squeezing out the next 10k in a little under 48 minutes.

Then the wheels started falling off, managing nothing but small sips of coke the next 10k were quite frankly a blur. Shuffling and walking, looking at my watch every 100m I staggered from aid station to aid station, desperate to go harder but just not able. This was not part of the plan, the buffer had all but gone and with it the 99% confidence of achieving my goal. So here I am 09:05 on the clock, 10k to go, flat on my back. I had stopped for a wee / a rest, call it what you want and collapsed. Disengaging autopilot at times of exhaustion can lead to a crash pretty quick but this was no time to dwell. It could have been so easy to walk it in but the journey had been too long ago and had taken too much time from me and others to go down this easy. In re-reading this I am very aware and near on embarrassed how dramatic it sounds but I cannot explain just how empty and utterly exhausted I was.

I spoke in 2015 of finding ironman racing humbling; this was certainly proving itself to be the case in Roth. It really is the reason I love long distance events, the breaking point quietly sneaks up on you, slowly stalking, taking a bit of energy in the swim,  a bit more on the bike , at this stage you can block it out, ignore it, pretend that everything is fine and actually it’s pretty easy. Then you start the run, the pace of deprecation increases until you can feel it snapping on your heels ready to pounce, its then a race, a race against yourself to get to the finish before you are finished.

Glancing at the word count, if you have made it this far then kudos on the staying power, you are probably more exhausted than I was.

Back to the race, I had one last trump card, a so called “extreme caffeine gel”… the favour is “tropical storm”, what does that even mean? It went in, tasted horrific, but it stayed down. I doubt it really made a difference but it was now or never, quite frankly the main driving force was I knew if I didn’t manage to do this thing in under 10 hours now I would have to go through all this again which I wanted to avoid at all costs. The remaining 10k were broken up into bite size chunks, walking was only allowed through feed stations but under no circumstances was I to stop. I was surprised to see my dad with 3k to go, he shouted out to me and for the life of me I have no idea what he said but I did know that this was realistically the last proper race he would see me compete in and any bit of inspiration at this stage was going a long way.

2k to go along a stretch through an industrial estate on the only bit of the course without any support, I just had to stop… resting my hands on my knees I shouted a word on the top my voice, this is not a word I have used too often and I am just glad my mum wasn’t there to hear me. Funnily enough, one guy I hadn’t seen was and he seemed to know exactly what I needed. Joining in with the profanities, he shouted out me “Stop F*****k around, Richard, get on with it, COME ON!” I wish I could say thank you now.

The last km felt like a sprint on jelly legs through the town, I hit the stadium and my watch said 09:58, I saw my mum, sister and Selina, knowing how close it was they just shouted GO GO GO, don’t stop. I wanted to and thought I could perhaps sacrifice the seconds, but I just couldn’t trust the time on my watch. I crossed the line in 09:58:57, just as predicted – Best Laid Plans.

2 bags of IV later and an incredibly deep sleep I saw in Pete and Matt, 2 epic performances by my friends and family and a great one to share with them.

Debrief

The next week went by and rather than elation I was disappointed, it is always a major come down from a big race like that so feeling a bit low is expected. The disappointment was really that all things considered I didn’t enjoy the race, I didn’t enjoy the training, I hadn’t even taken the time to enjoy 10,000 people cheering for me in a stadium and this was hugely frustrating. I spent quite a long time working out why and eventually it was very clear, the race target had become too consuming, nothing else mattered so whenever I came across a setback that threatened this a little, more joy was lost. This was not the reason I got into triathlons and to be honest I would have happily thrown my bike in that Bavarian canal after the race.

But… I am addicted, addicted to the endorphins that come with challenging yourself, burying yourself beyond exhaustion. Other than a boxing match how many times to get to truly test yourself physically and mentally, granted the difference here is this against yourself but that’s what makes for such an exciting and even match up, also at I reckon I would be hopeless at boxing.

Finally, I don’t believe I deserved to go under 10 hours, I don’t think I trained enough but Roth became a mental and physical test of resilience. It chewed me up and spat me the right side of where I was aiming. The lessons learnt were huge though and I am now way more self-aware of just how far you can push yourself before you have to stop and I’m keen to test this out… can I go further, can I go faster?

What’s Next?

The biggest race of 2017 is no race at all but rather the start of IVF with Selina, unfortunately the delay in me writing this means we are already through one failure and into our second round. Quite simply though an ironman is nothing compared to the physical and mental aspects of IVF and as proud as Sel is of me after each race I am of her each evening as she injects herself full of some concoction of hormones confusing drugs (it’s not performance enhancing, I’ve checked).  I also wonder, when successful, if my paragraph above about not racing for anyone else will change.

As I didn’t throw my bike in that canal and the docs gave me the all clear that years in lycra on narrow saddles is not proving a detriment to the challenge above I have decided to change tact slightly. The mantra this year is times don’t matter (well they always matter a bit) and instead it’s time to test the resilience. With my first ultra-marathon (106km round the IOW) in 6 days’ time and an entry into Triathlon X 6 weeks after (The world’s supposed toughest Ironman) I will just be racing to finish and enjoy.